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Caring for outdoor cats: How to keep them safe and healthy

Cat sitting outdoors on gravel with plants and fence behind
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Outdoor cats may be a smaller group than indoor cats, but they still make up a sizable number of the feline population. If you’ve found that your beloved ball of fur would rather spend their days roaming about in nature than curled up near you, knowing the pros and cons of letting your cat go outside and how to keep them safe is super important.

According to a study published in academic journal Animals (Basel), around 63% of domestic cats in the United States live their lives inside, with little or no access to the great outdoors. In contrast, in many European countries, that number drops to around 26%, with more cats being allowed to roam free. Regardless of which side of the world you live on, if you decide to have an outdoor cat, there are a few things worth considering.

While the great outdoors provides a superior environment for physical exercise and is great for keeping your kitty mentally stimulated, unless you have a secure outdoor cat enclosure for your feline friend, it also increases the risk of your cat contracting an infectious disease, picking up fleas and ticks, and being exposed to a range of potential threats, such as traffic and predators. 

There’s no denying that our feline friends who spend most of their time outdoors live a more dangerous life than their brothers and sisters who spend their days in the safety and comfort of home. But, that doesn’t mean that your kitty can’t thrive as an outdoor cat. Below, we walk you through the pros and cons of this lifestyle and what you can do to ensure your beloved bundle of fur stays happy and healthy.

Outdoor cats: The pros

There are so many wonderful benefits to allowing your feline friend regular access to the great outdoors. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. More exercise

Outdoor cats have a lot more opportunity for exercise than indoor cats, with nature serving as one massive playground for them to enjoy. Whether it’s pouncing on grass that’s blowing about in the wind, chasing their fellow outdoor feline friends, jumping up on things or climbing trees, being outdoors provides your kitty with all the physical stimulation they need to ward off obesity and keep their body in tip-top condition. 

2. Banishes boredom

Is your cat bored? Even with the coolest cat toys at their disposal, indoor cats are prone to periods of boredom and this can often result in unwanted protest behaviors, such as scratching the furniture or urinating outside of the litter box. Nature provides a wonderfully stimulating and enriching environment for cats that is exactly what their ancestors would have experienced. 

3. Taps into their natural instincts

Cats are natural predators and the great outdoors offers so many opportunities for them to tap into all those instincts that are hardwired into them, such as stalking, chasing, and pouncing. Not only does hunting prey (whether it be a mouse or a moving flower) provide your cat with a great full-body workout, it also helps keep their mind sharp and engaged. 

Outdoor cats: The cons

Ginger cat lying on a hay bale

(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s clear that there are plenty of perks to outdoor life, but there are also some serious drawbacks that need to be carefully considered before you decide to grant your cat unlimited access to the world beyond the safety of home. 

1. Lower life expectancy

According to the Animal Humane Society, letting your cat spend time outdoors could shorten their lifespan by as much as 10-12 years! Road traffic accidents in particular are a huge concern for cats with unlimited outdoor access with a study published in Animals (Basel) showing that 45% of cats crossed the road while being monitored. 

Alongside the potential risk of being hit by a car, predators, particularly dogs and coyotes, can pose a big threat to your cat’s safety and wellbeing. There’s also the issue of your kitty ingesting something that they shouldn’t, such as antifreeze in the winter or commonly used garden pesticides in the summer - not to mention the range of plants and flowers that are toxic for cats.

2. Increased risk of getting lost

Unless you’ve fitted your kitty with a good pet tracker, letting them roam free greatly increases the risk that your feline friend will wander too far and be unable to find their way home. This is particularly common in the winter when the cold temperatures can cause animals to become disorientated.

As well as getting lost, there’s also a chance that your cat may find themselves locked in someone’s garden shed or get trapped in an abandoned house or building. If your cat isn’t wearing a tracker or collar with identification, a good Samaritan may find them, and thinking they’re a stray, take them to the nearest animal shelter. 

3. More likely to get sick

Being outdoors greatly increases the chance that your cat will pick up an infectious disease. There are a range of diseases that can be spread on contact and these include: 

  • Feline AIDS (FIV)
  • Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP)
  • Feline leukemia virus (FeLV)
  • Feline Distemper (FPV)
  • Toxoplasma gondii
  • Upper respiratory infections

It’s really important if you’re planning on letting your cat spend the bulk of their time outdoors that all of their vaccinations are up to date. Nature is also the place where fleas, ticks, lice and mosquitoes run rampant, so it's worth investing in the best flea treatment for cats to protect your kitty from pesky parasites.

6 ways to keep outdoor cats safe

While outdoor cats are going to encounter more risks on a day to day basis than indoor cats, that doesn’t mean that you need to keep your feline friend cooped up inside against their will. If you do decide that granting your moggy access to the outdoors is the path you want to go down, here are our top tips for keeping them safe:

1. Make sure your cat’s ID is up to date

It’s crucial that your kitty can be quickly and easily identified if they happen to get lost. We recommend you fit them with a pet tracker, a safety collar with a breakaway mechanism in case they get stuck, an ID tag with their name and your contact details, and a microchip. 

2. Spay or neuter your cat

Spaying or neutering your pet is a must if they’re going to be living largely outdoors. While this will stop your cat impregnating another cat or becoming pregnant themselves, it will also prevent diseases that can be contracted through mating as well as fighting, which is much more prevalent in unspayed and unneutered cats.

3. Keep your cat’s vaccinations up to date

It’s worth speaking to your vet about what vaccinations your outdoor cat is going to need and if these are only administered once or whether an annual shot is advisable. You might also like to talk through your flea treatment and prevention options to decide whether a topical treatment or one of the best flea collars for cats is going to be more suitable for your feline friend. 

4. Ensure your cat has access to food and water

Whether it’s the best wet cat food or the best dry cat food, you’re going to want to make sure that your moggy doesn’t miss a meal when they venture home - and that they have plenty of fresh water available to them. 

One option is to fit a cat flap into your home as this will allow your kitty to come and go as they please. You could also set up an area outdoors that they can visit to eat and drink, although you do run the risk of all the other cats in the neighborhood swinging by too!

5. Invest in an outdoor cat house 

If you have a cat who pops out for the day and then returns at night, setting up an outdoor cat house isn’t likely to be necessary. However, if you have a feline friend who prefers to spend the bulk of their time outside, a cat house will do a wonderful job of keeping them warm in the winter, providing shelter against the elements and protecting them from predators. 

6. Check your cat over regularly

It’s a really good idea to give your outdoor cat a thorough going over whenever they pop inside to say hello. Check for any bumps, scratches, wounds or other injuries that may indicate they’ve been in a fight or accident. Look for fleas and ticks and use the right type of cat brush for your feline's coat to work through any mats or tangles in their fur and keep their skin and coat healthy.

Kathryn is a freelance writer who has spent the past two years dividing her writing time between her two great loves - pets and health and wellness. When she’s not busy crafting the perfect sentence for her features, buying guides and news pieces, she can be found hanging out with one very mischievous Cocker Spaniel, drinking copious amounts of Jasmine tea and attempting to set numerous world records for the longest ever FaceTime calls with her family back home in NZ.